Removing Barriers to Productivity: Team Building Process




Problem-solving, Art and Science:

We’ve covered all the basics in the barrier removal process with one exception: working with people to solve problems. While the technical mechanics of work processes are straight forward, success depends on eliciting the buy in of the people participating in the process. Social and organizational acumen are critical for successful root cause analysis and problem-solving. Both short-term and long-term problem-solving require people engagement strategies that work within the rational, political and emotional dimensions of an organization.


The Logic

The basis for identifying barriers, operating problems, is using time as a management tool. When a task takes more time than expected, it indicates something is different than expected. Extra activity was required. Look for a productivity barrier.


Most of the problem-solving falls into the short-term category. Using expected time as a tool, first line supervisors are trained to identify barriers in progress and take immediate action to minimize the impact on their crews. They learn to use organizational resources that can correct the situation. Many of the solutions can look more like expediting, restoring productivity quickly.


However, there will be problems that require broader, deeper problem-solving to develop a fully effective and permanent resolution: the long-term solutions. Typically, these are process or systemic problems where existing procedures, flows and responsibilities need to be redesigned and documented. Requiring work across organizational lines, multi-department agreement on solutions, and the cooperation of several departments to implement, these are best addressed by cross-functional teams facilitated by a designated and experienced facilitator.


The facilitator keeps the group on track (agenda, objectives, cooperation, approach, and schedule). The facilitator owns the meeting “process”, allowing the rest of the team to focus on problems and solutions, the “content”. Guided by the facilitator, the individuals cooperate to develop solutions compatible with several organizational functions. This method is called Problem Solving and Team Building.


Ground Rules:

A natural, human tendency, in trying to solve problems affecting your department, is to point fingers, place blame. However, this can quickly turn root cause analysis and problem-solving into a contentious exercise. Experience shows that if you start the effort assuming that everyone wants to and is doing a good job, you will be right 99 percent of the time. And, gaining their cooperation to make beneficial change will be far easier, and quicker. So, as you approach anyone who looks like they are causing you a problem, approach it assuming that they might be having a problem them self (that they may be unaware of) and you’re there to help them. Ask them to investigate it with you and do something about it – together. An experienced facilitator will help assure a team building versus a confrontative exercise.


Root Cause Analysis Methods:

Before any solution can be developed, the root cause of the problem must be identified. Otherwise problem-solving, developing solutions, is hit or miss. Some fixes might work. Many will not. You will waste a lot of time until a root cause is clearly identified. Without a specific root cause, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to marshal support developing and implementing a solution.

There are many types of root cause analysis. Simplest is the Why process. The investigation keeps asking “why did that happen”, several times (usually recommended at five times), to dig through layers of cause and effect to the root cause. Increasing in complexity, there is also Cause and Effect Charting, Fault Tree Analysis, and Hypothesis Testing, among others. One thing these all have in common is structure. Structure provides a step-by-step prescription to follow – to avoid getting “lost in the weeds”. Selecting a method depends on participants’ experience and familiarity. If the client company has selected a specific method, work with that method.


Root Cause Analysis for Process or Systemic Issues:

The need for long-term solutions can become apparent where the barriers addressed by short-term solutions continue to appear, or analysis of the Pareto charts reveal chronic problem areas. A long-term effort begins with a small team actively performing root cause analysis. They are given full access to the detail underlying the Pareto chart and the latitude to follow the root cause trail wherever that may lead. The team interviews people involved in each incident listed in the data underlying the Pareto Chart, investigating each cause and effect. The facilitator keeps the team on track, following the selected process (enforcing the no blame approach), managing meeting minutes, following up assignments, and helping organize their root causes for review and presentation.


Problem-solving Team Building:

There may be solutions the root cause team can easily apply. These are typically solutions they can implement in their own departments. However, any solution that will require the cooperation of other departments should be preceded by orienting the new department’s leadership regarding the necessary departmental cooperation. This says that any root cause team should review their findings with their sponsor, late in their root cause investigation, to determine if and how to approach additional departments. Credible members of the new departments join the original root cause team to participate in problem-solving.


Effective problem-solving also follows a structured process. Without structure, problem-solving can deteriorate into a series of wasted meetings. Where teams are cross-functional, with membership from several departments, the value of the facilitator increases. The team will focus on ideas, evaluation and various technical issues. The facilitator’s role is not to solve the problem. It is to manage the process of the meetings, information sharing, meeting time contracts, and idea generation freeing the team members for doing their job, developing solutions that solve the problem.


The facilitator is accountable for guiding the team through the problem-solving process, leading the process through a series of meetings and homework assignments. The problem-solving process has eight steps that can be iterative depending on the situation. The steps are:


1. Team Formulation: The facilitator works with the sponsor to develop team membership and roles, including who should be the decision-maker for selecting solutions and breaking ties.

2. Root cause description: The root cause is stated in one sentence and shared in the first work session with the entire team.

3. Background: Findings of the root cause team is shared in that same session. History of the problem is discussed. The impact of the problem and the potential payoff is described.

4. Idea Generation: The facilitator guides the brainstorming, soliciting input. Scribing the ideas for the team, the facilitator frees team members to participate rather than take notes.

5. Idea Selection: The designated decision-maker selects the idea or ideas they wish to pursue further. They share their selection and rationale with the team.

6. Strengths/weaknesses of Selected Idea: Together, the decision-maker and team assess the selected idea(s). They first identify strengths, what they like about the idea(s), and then their concerns, weaknesses why it may not work.

7. Idea Generation to Overcome Weaknesses: Taking direction from the decision-maker, the facilitator leads the team generating ideas for each concern, how to eliminate or minimize that concern.

8. Next Steps: The decision-maker and team identify who will, do what, by when to implement the idea(s). The facilitator prepares and distributes all meeting minutes, notes and next steps.


As stated, the steps are not linear. They are more iterative. For example, the first work session might cover steps 1 and 2 ending with step 8, assigning next steps to occur before the next session. (Good meeting management calls for making assignments at the end of every work session – to be followed up before the next meeting by the facilitator.) Then, the following session could be step 3, generating ideas and end with step 8. The decision-maker might select ideas between sessions and return in the third session to share the selection and work step 6, strengths/weaknesses of the selected solution. That session would end with step 8, making assignments. Next session would work to correct any weaknesses identified in the selected idea, ending, of course, with next steps for the next session. The last session is step 8, the next steps for the problem-solving team: developing the implementation plan.


Epilogue:

Barrier removal is probably the single, most participative intervention in the performance improvement toolbox. It appeals to the rank and file, stepping up to resolve potentially frustrating, certainly long-standing operating problems of which they are fully aware. The rank and file can participate in sessions that give them an opportunity to do something they’ve never done before, use their experience to improve the workflow. Executive management likes it because it is a concrete method to organizationally engage employees, providing a vehicle for their contribution to improvement. And, it has concrete payoff delivering potentially monetary benefits in reduced cost, reduced cycle time, improved safety and quality, on-time delivery.


Then, there is the intangible benefit of improved morale and teamwork. For example, it is not uncommon that a cross-functional team is composed of participants with an historically adversarial relationship: engineering and accounting dealing with plant accounting procedures for new assets.


In an actual case, after that team moved through forming, storming, norming, and performing, a new relationship emerged between the two functions. The engineering manager on the team commented, “You know, the accounting manager has been in their job for five years. Over that time, I never had a chance to work directly with them. Always under a time-crunch, we had been continually dealing with something we’d done wrong having to rework our documentation. But now, we’ve had a chance to work together on this team, side by side, with the same objectives. I see them differently now. They’re very capable. They know their stuff and they’re quite reasonable.”

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